`Making broadband happen’

Jun 11, 2001  •  Post A Comment

LAURA DUNPHY, Special to Electronic Media
Interactivity, e-commerce, hundreds of digital cable channels and Internet access through television sets are no longer simply futuristic concepts. Thanks to increasing broadband access, cable customers can experience those features today. That’s why the National Cable & Telecommunications Association is proclaiming, “We’re making broadband happen” as the theme of its convention this week in Chicago.
“This is the year to tout the fact that the future is here today,” said Jerry Kent, president and CEO of Charter Communications and the 2001 NCTA Convention chairman.
Exhibits and sessions will underscore the theme. Vendors will display technologies being deployed today, not just features that may or may not be possible in the distant future. In a new move, cable company CEOs will accompany reporters on the floor, so journalists can experience the offerings firsthand while asking follow-up questions of the executives. Seminars and sessions will be broad-based, Mr. Kent said, covering financials, interactive television, burgeoning technologies and, in the general session panel, “Making Broadband Happen.”
Jon DeVaan, Microsoft TV senior vice president and general session panel speaker, plans to emphasize the services that will help cable operators maximize revenues.
“There are pure video ways-more channels, pay-per-view,” Mr. DeVaan said. “But when you add in new kinds of subscription services that take advantage of two-way connectivity, like Internet access, video on demand, and commerce, those are new revenue opportunities.”
Microsoft TV provides software that, through set-top boxes, allows for such features.
Broadband is also pushing the cable industry toward becoming a more wide-ranging telecommunications industry, said Michael Willner, president and CEO of Insight Communications, a digital cable provider that is aggressively launching advanced broadband services such as high-speed Internet access and telephony.
Due to the improved technical quality of broadband, the cable industry can be more flexible and enter into areas-Internet access and telephone service, for example-that were not previously considered possible cable company ventures.
“It’s a very different business from when we were building community antenna television services,” Mr. Willner said. “We’re completely transforming into a telecommunications powerhouse in what is going to become a very competitive industry.”
Flexibility will clearly benefit the cable industry, others agreed.
“A broadband pipe into the home means that no other competitor can provide the same level of speed, capacity and interactive capability that our customers crave,” said Mr. Kent, whose company, Charter, is making waves in high-speed data deployment and interactive TV.
That means broadband customers can receive services that are bandwidth hogs, like video on demand and streaming, which satellite cannot yet offer, Mr. Kent said.
Also emphasizing increased utility thanks to broadband was general session panel participant Maggie Wilderotter, president and CEO of Wink Communications, which allows cable operators to offer interactive services.
“Networks can extend their brand with multiple channels of programming, instead of just one channel because of limited channel capacity on an analog system,” she said. “There’s also the capability of grabbing advertisers and selling advertising packages across various networks, which is a different economic model.”
Consumers also profit from increased broadband services, industry insiders said.
“[Competition] leads to innovation, to companies trying to service the customers better, and to advances in technology and convenience that would be absent in a more monopolistic environment,” Mr. Kent said.
Ms. Wilderotter added that research shows customers growing more comfortable using enhanced features offered via broadband. For example, cable operators offer some of Wink’s enhanced broadcasting services for free. Ms. Wilderotter believes that could lead to customer loyalty and improved relationships between cable companies and subscribers.
Despite progress over the past few years, cable providers now have to deal with the slowing economy. But many say cable operators should avoid curtailing their advancements in a time like this.
“When times get tough, and in environments where there’s economic uncertainty, it would be terrible for cable operators to pull back from offering new services and slow the rollout,” Ms. Wilderotter said. “This is the time to capitalize, because the DBS [direct broadcast satellite] guys are not going to sit back and wait.”
Another challenge will be to fend off the scores of competitors in previously uncharted areas, such as Internet access and telephone service. “We have different competitors depending on the revenue stream you’re looking at,” Mr. Willner said.
Dealing with obstacles is par for the course for the cable companies that have succeeded in adding innovative services and features to the digital broadband arena. That’s something to celebrate, and that’s the plan for the NCTA conference.
Said Mr. Kent, “People will be able to see technology that is here today, that provides convenience to the consumer and that really makes the cable industry stand out as a technology leader against its competitors.”